Monday, December 24, 2007

The Rockettes and American culture.

On this Christmas Eve, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland has some thoughts on the cultural significance of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Holland starts out by bemoaning the uncertainty of American musical identity: "Is American music Aaron Copland with wide-open spaces and Farmer Brown singing the pentatonic scale? Is it grouchy old Charles Ives tinkering with the vernacular?" Then he gets to the heart of the matter, and finds a way to tie in the Rockettes:
Musical identity comes hard to immigrant nations. Israel has produced wonderful musicians but no composition of real interest that I know of. America has had more time to make its list but still can't decide. Remember that Copland's "Billy the Kid" is a Wild West celebration by a Russian Jew from Brooklyn.

I took heart, however, and may have seen the light at Radio City Music Hall. The annual Christmas show was in full swing, filling the vast, opulent and optimistic hall with singing, dancing, spectacular sets, a 3-D film sequence to knock your socks off and, of course, the Rockettes.

. . .

The Christmas show is splendid machinery that works; Detroit, take note. On its elevating orchestra pit Gary Adler and his players perform in high style. The night I was there the hungry were not fed, nor was peace restored to sub-Saharan Africa. But good work to no practical end has its own psychic value.

"The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular" might bring a sneer to the world-weary, but also an unspoken sense of wonder that so many people could be making so many other people happy. It's not the real world, you might say, but what we want to see, as opposed to what the newspapers tell us, has its own reality. Poverty, violence and political stupidity are facts, but they do not diminish the joy of the "Washington Post March" and John Philip Sousa marching down our street.

Sousa and Radio City are the best of us - the America we want to live in and occasionally do. Who is to say that simple gladness is less important than profound misery? Imitation Wagner, at any rate, gets America nowhere. Maybe the Christmas show's dancing Santas are America's answer to "Tristan und Isolde." Do you think I'm joking? Well, you will never know.
I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with my parents when they were visiting New York over Thanksgiving. Radio City doesn't claim to be the Metropolitan Opera, but it does deliver a good-natured, heartwarming and technically flawless Christmas pageant. Radio City also acknowledges the true meaning of Christmas with a reverent recreation of what the program calls the "Living Nativity" (which includes live animals as well as human actors). The Christmas Spectacular may not be high culture, but it is an exemplary piece of Americana and, by the standards of a young country, a venerable Christmas tradition. AMDG.


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